Barack Obama’s foreign-policy failures, and those of his predecessors, regarding North Korea, are coming back to bedevil Donald Trump’s new presidency. Trump administration spokesmen have rightly said that Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” a synonym for doing nothing, is over. But they have not yet articulated a replacement strategy.
Analysts across the political spectrum now believe that North Korea is perilously close to fabricating nuclear devices — at least five of which have already been detonated — small enough to mount on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking targets within the continental United States. Some estimates posit this capability as early as 2018, with targets closer to the Korean Peninsula, including Japan and Hawaii likely at risk earlier.
Time is thus in desperately short supply, one of the fruits of 25 years of wasted efforts negotiating with Pyongyang. The harsh reality is that Kim Jung Un and his predecessors were never going to be chit-chatted out of their nuclear-weapons program, which they have always regarded as essential to regime survival. Neither persuasion nor coercion, nor any mix of the two, has succeeded before, and we have no reason to believe they will start succeeding now.
There are any number of suggestions about how to increase military pressure on North Korea, including scenarios for pre-emptive attacks against its nuclear and ballistic-missile assets. Certainly, no American president should be willing to countenance the risk to innocent U.S. civilians, and those of our vulnerable friends and allies in the region, that Pyongyang’s erratic leadership increasingly poses. Moreover, we must be sure China understands President Trump’s determination — reportedly explained in person to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the recent Mar-a-Lago summit — not to be held hostage by Pyongyang.
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